In March, the great American poet W. S. Merwin died. Here Michael Malay reflects on the valley that he and his wife Paula painstakingly restored over many decades.
I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language
In the 1970s, the American poet W. S. Merwin moved from New York to the northern coast of Maui, where he bought nineteen acres of land in the Pe‘ahi valley. The land was in a critical state. In the nineteenth century, a resource-hungry whaling industry stripped the valley of its native trees: its koas and ‘ohias, halas and sandalwoods. Later, it was turned into pasture for cattle, before being converted, in the 1850s, into a sugarcane plantation. (In the rush to irrigate the fields, the planters diverted water that once fed the Pe‘ahi stream, sucking the streambed dry.) In the early twentieth century, the land suffered another humiliation when it was transformed into a pineapple plantation. Instead of following the contours of the valley, the farmers decided to plow vertically, going up and down the steep slopes, a process that degraded the topsoil even more. After government authorities inspected the farm in the 1970s – long after the plantation had been abandoned – the valley was classified as agricultural wasteland.
For the next forty years, W. S Merwin and his wife Paula set about restoring the valley. It was slow work. Stripped of its nutrients and exposed to decades of weather, the soil could no longer sustain its native trees: most of the koas they planted died in their infancy. ‘The disturbance of the soil, apparently, had been too great’ Merwin writes. The land was ‘unwelcoming to what had once grown there.’ But one group of trees managed to thrive. The palm trees that the Merwins sourced from a friend, Hawaiian Pritchardias, started to take root, to bind the soil together again. So they planted more palms – week after week, year after year – and soon a green shade was lifted over the valley, a living shelter began to form. The valley spoke in tree again: canopy-combed-by-wind, night-rain-on-fronds, root-pushing-past-stone. Gathering palms of every conceivable variety, including endangered species from around the world, the Merwins turned the Pe‘ahi valley into a palm sanctuary, planting, in time, more than 3,000 palms and over 400 species. One of the trees that flourishes there, Hyophorbe indica, was once considered extinct in its native Reunion Island. Today, the forest grows itself.
W. S. Merwin knew that ‘reforestation’ was a slightly dubious term. One cannot create a forest any more than one can create a saltmarsh, or an upland heath, or any complex ecosystem: a forest is made by its insects and birds, its soil and climate – by presences and processes finally beyond human control. Still, one could open a space for those things to thrive, could redeem what had been damaged by ill-use and neglect. One could nurture the land – and be nurtured by it, sheltering the very thing that would later offer shelter. ‘What you remember saves you’, Merwin writes in Learning a Dead Language. And what you remember ‘becomes yourself’.
In this time of uncertain weather and relentless loss, to plant trees can be a radical act. To remember a forest – its intricate complexity, its vibrant wholeness – is to remember a more joyous and connected version of ourselves. It is to cultivate, seed by seed, sapling by sapling, forests of the mind: to reclaim a lost geography. One of Merwin’s most moving prose-poems is called Unchopping a Tree, an instruction manual for righting a tree that’s been felled. ‘Start with the leaves’ and ‘the small ‘twigs’, it begins; ‘these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places’. The piece ends: ‘Others are waiting. Everything is going to have to be put back.’
One forest in a valley won’t change the world, but it can capture some of the carbon in our helter-skelter atmosphere, and what’s more, capture our imaginations too, bringing water to inner regions where streams are dry and soil parched. Such acts can also create pockets of hope, microclimates of resistance, fixing nitrogen, compassion and care into the land. And, although these places are surrounded by the world’s major weather, they can create weather systems of their own, fronts that may expand outwards. Lately, the prevailing winds seem to carry more destruction than life, fanning flames that already seem out of control, but it is possible that the same winds are also full of fruits and seeds, that mixed up in the debris are letters of solidarity and hope, sent from both the living and the dead. In 2017, two days before her 81st birthday, Paula Merwin passed away, but the forest she started with her husband now takes care of itself, growing on its own terms. One palm tree, Socratea exorrhiza, stands on a network of stilt-like roots, and, if it finds itself being shaded out by other trees, is able to ‘walk’ slowly across a forest floor, over a period of years and decades. Its movement is imperceptible to our eyes, but it follows a simple and beautiful law: it is always moving towards the light.
W. S. Merwin died on the 15th of March. He was ninety-one years old. He spent his life nurturing language and being nurtured by it, breathing new life into old words, redeeming them from abuse and degradation. By this means he also kept up a correspondence with the dead, whose traces linger in our common words. Language is ‘passed on from breath to breath’, Merwin writes in one of his poems, handed to us from ‘indifferent elders’ who are ‘nevertheless the keepers of our name’. The dead speak through us – and to us – with our everyday words. Words like ‘tree’, ‘valley’ and ‘soil’. ‘Rain’, ‘wind’ and ‘land’. Among the poet’s tasks, for Merwin, was to protect and affirm these everyday words, so that their dignity and lustre was kept intact. Because we inherit these words from the past, we are also required to pass them onto the future, ensuring that both they and the things they refer to are in good shape.
The palm sanctuary is being tended to by others now. But it continues to radiate the intentions of its original gardeners, offering nourishment, shelter and shade. In the same way, the words Merwin cared for during his long life continue to gleam and glimmer, to resonate and sing. Strengthened and dignified by their contact with his imagination. Nourished and fed by his care of them. The poet is gone now, but the common words he lived by are still with us – and in those words we might hear echoes of his voice, now mixing in with our names:
One thing about the living sometimes a piece of us
Can stop dying for a moment
But you the dead
Once you go into those names you go on you never
You go on
MICHAEL MALAY teaches English Literature at the University of Bristol.